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Where can you get a three-star experience at one-star prices? Which hot new restaurant merits the scorching hype? The answer to all these questions and more can be found Tuesdays at 11 AM on Kliman Online.
From scoping out scruffy holes in the wall to weighing the merits of four-star wanna-bes, from scouring the 'burbs and exurbs to hitting the city's streets, Todd Kliman covers a lot of territory.
Winner of a James Beard Foundation Award in 2005 for the country's best newspaper column about food, Kliman is food and wine editor and restaurant critic for The Washingtonian. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, The Oxford American, Lucky Peach, The Daily Beast and Men's Health, among others, and he has been selected four times for inclusion in the Best Food Writing anthologies.
He is the author of The Wild Vine, a literary exploration of two entwined mysteries: an obscure grape that rose to prominence, only to disappear, and its present-day evangelist, a foul-mouthed transgendered multi-millionaire vintner on an obsessive quest to restore the legend of an antebellum southern doctor.
Todd previously taught writing and literature at American University and Howard University. At Howard, he was also the editorial advisor to The Illtop Journal, Chris Rock's humor magazine modeled after the Harvard Lampoon.
Can't wait a week to talk to Todd? Follow him on Twitter for dining reports, tips, and breaking news from the culinary world. Or write to him: firstname.lastname@example.org
W H E R E I ' M E A T I N G N O W . . .
Sisters Thai, Fairfax
I like the bait-and-switch of this two-sister-led operation. The bait: a cozy tea shop atmosphere, the sort of setting you expect to sip a pot of tea and nibble scones and flip the pages of a home remodeling magazine. The switch comes when you order. This kitchen delivers a punch. Ask for it Thai hot, and it will come out Thai hot. The even better news is that the kitchen doesn't just ladle on the finger peppers; it works with surprising focus and clarity.
Mi Cuba Cafe, DC
This tiny cafe, on Park Rd. in Columbia Heights, makes the best picadillo I've had in a long, long time -- with the right amount of olives in the mix, and, more vitally important, the perfect soft texture. Good rice and plantains, too. And finding a restaurant in the thick of DC that can turn out a good, hearty meal for 2 in the range of $35 is pretty close to miraculous.
Little Ricky's, DC
This lively, art-strewn Cuban cafe acts as a bookend to Menomale on Brookland's main drag. Both places have the pulse of more populous, better-serviced neighborhoods, and manage to communicate a simple sophistication without much effort. The cooking is not just the hearty homeyness we expect of Cuban restaurants; there's an unexpected finesse, too. (And -- what's this? -- sauteed zucchini and onions on the plates: who ever heard of a Cuban restaurant serving vegetables?) Among the must-orders: the masas de puerco, twice-cooked hunks of pork that rival the rich lusciousness of perfect barbecue.
Mari Vanna, DC
Most restaurants begin with an aha! moment, and for this import from Moscow (with locations also in London and New York) I imagine that moment must have happened something like this: "What we do is, we make a hip place for trendy young Russians to go and eat and drink, with exposed brick walls and cocktail creations and lots of noise, but at the same time we make them pine for Mother Russia, with doilies on the tables and a guy sweeping through the dining room playing folk tunes on the accordion and babushka furniture and little babushka purses to stuff the check into at the end." Service the night I was in was a mess; I can't remember a meal in the last couple of years in which more went wrong. And our first courses were hardly diverting: a beet salad was salty, and a smoked fish platter was uneven. But then came the pelmeni (tortellini-like bundles of tender pasta stuffed with well-seasoned veal and served with heavy sour cream) and a fabulous rendition of chicken tabaka -- a Georgian specialty, in which the bird is cooked under a weight in a heavy cast skillet; it came with fingerling potatoes and a sour cream-and-dill sauce. We finished with more sour cream -- spooned onto our sweetened blinis, along with good cherry preserves -- and waddled out into the night.
Monty's Steakhouse, Springfield
"I normally don't do field reports like this," began the Facebook message I received one day a couple of weeks ago, "but if Monty's Steakhouse in Springfield doesn't get some attention, then shame on you. It's easily and by far the best restaurant in the general contiguous suburban sprawl of Springfield, Burke, Lorton, Franconia, southern Alexandria, Fairfax Station and maybe Occoquan." Consider it done, BB, and thank you for the great tip. I'm not yet ready to make such sweeping claims, but Monty's is doing a lot of things right. The comfy and subtly stylish space, which situates this steakhouse squarely among the new, non-masculine subset of the genre, is as unexpected as the quality of the cooking at this stripmall Springfiled restaurant. The steaks -- hand-trimmed, locally-grown dry-aged prime meat, owner Madana Montazami claims -- are big, properly cooked, full of juice, and rewarding, and the sides are cooked with care. For lunch, there's a very good burger and a prime rib steak sandwich piled high with mushrooms. The Bolivian chef, Marco Camacho, even sneaks a ceviche onto the menu, and it's as bountiful as it is bright. And I would be remiss if I didn't put in a word for the service, which has both a snap and sincerity that are too often missing, even in big-city settings.
Why drive to Baltimore when there's plenty of good sushi in DC? The skewered chicken parts, for starters -- luscious mini kabobs of heart, skin, tail, all of them cooked over smoldering logs of Japanese white oak that perfume the room and call to mind the mood-altering atmospherics of a pricey sauna. The sake list (bottles start at $13 and run to four digits) is fantastic, the best and most extensive in the region, and with helpful annotations worthy of a good wine list. And then there's the sushi -- 22 varieties of fish on offer, including a daily selection from Tokyo's famed Tsukiji market. Take note of the excellent sushi rice; it's made with fermented vinegar, which tastes like a cross between a craft beer and a digestif and gives the grains more flavor and character.
Right up the street, actually — north on 355, aka Rockville Pike, until you hit the Rockville Town Center area.
The place I’m talking about is not in Rockville Town Center, it’s right near it. Sichuan Jin River.
And I recommend it highly — more highly than Joe’s, which I like, but which in recent years has been pretty uneven across its 200-some dishes.
Further up 355, there’s China Jade, which is another good spot to experience that heat and tingle of real Szechuan.
If you don’t mind a road trip, the best in the region is Peter Chang’s China Cafe, in Richmond. Especially if the master is in. Note to Chang-heads: The chef will be opening a new location closer to home, in Fredericksburg, in May.
Good going, Grillmarx!
I agree with you — a veggie burger is often such a pitiable thing. I have veg friends who say, What are you talking about? There are so many good ones out there now. To which I say: where? Most have the texture of a McDonald’s hash brown cake, but with the strange, insistent seasoning of that spice-happy kid who worked at the food co-op in college.
I will gladly throw my support behind anybody who can do a good veggie burger.
Thanks for writing in with the tip.
What makes this all the more impressive, is that Grillmarks is a steakhouse, a genre of restaurant not known for innovation, let alone caring about the needs of those who don’t eat meat.
First of all, thank you for saying all the things you did about my work. I appreciate it, and hope I can persuade you, somehow, to not be a “silent lurker” in the future.
Your question is a good one. The answer is that it has much more to do with Pabu and Woodberry Kitchen than it has to do with Charleston.
Our feeling was that both those places offer an experience that is not so common in DC, and that those experiences are worth sharing with our readers. Charleston is a good restaurant; but what it does is not very different from what a fair number of DC restaurants do.
I don’t recommend Matchbox; it’s fine if you’re in striking distance.
Can’t recommend Comet, either, after my most recent experience.
Actually, come to think of it, I’ve had a lot of not-great pizza lately. Also on the not-recommended list: 2 Amys; H & Pizza (which got off to a good start, but I had two pies this weekend and the crusts were soft and tasteless); and Seventh Hill (why, oh, why did they put my basil on before not after, resulting in heaps of char and ash on my finished pie?)
My recs: Pete’s New Haven Style Pizza, which is not on your list; Menomale, which is; the plain tomato and the white clam at Haven, in Bethesda; and — definitely worth a drive, since it’s the best pizza in the area — Vin 909 Winecafe, in Annapolis.
So, to recap: Chicken, nay; donuts, yay; and thank goodness for the free pitcher of water.
Thanks for the report; your description of the donut, I am going to guess, has made at least half of the people on here ravenous. Including me.
I don’t think you’re wrong to “psychologize,” if that’s even the right word here. The donuts are the handiwork of Tiffany MacIsaac, one of the best pastry chefs in the city. I’ve sampled 7 or 8 of them; they’re terrific; I’d eat one every day if I could.
Charging $2.75 for a donut made by someone who knows everything there probably is to know about donut-making is not a rip-off. And actually, compared to what a lot of cupcake places are putting out — mediocre cupcakes globbed with 500 calories worth of frosting — it’s a downright deal.
I think making good fried chicken in a format like this is harder than making good donuts. It’s got to be irresistible like fast-food fried chicken, while not resorting to the amped-up techniques of the fast-food joints (sugar water injections, etc.) and using better, fresher ingredients. Tall order for chef Kyle Bailey.
I just got off the phone with Maureen Hirsch, the director of marketing for the Clyde’s Restaurant Group, who says:
The chief focus of the company right now, Hirsch says, is the Columbia location, which is undergoing a massive, $5 million renovation.
“We’re maxed out at 14 places right now,” Hirsch added.
Well, it’s not a bargain restaurant by any means, but you can eat not-too-expensively at Sushi Taro at lunch with the $12.95 lunch bento.
It comes with tempura, some sashimi, miso and rice.The neat thing is for a quarter, you can add extra nigiri.
For bargain-rate sushi across the board, I’d suggest Kotobuki, in DC’s Palisades.
Nope, didn’t forget it; don’t like it.
What I did forget, was Il Canale, in Georgetown. And Mia’s Pizzas, in Bethesda.
Thanks for that nicely detailed front-line report …
Speaking of “deliberately creating a backup to hype their product,” have you popped by the new Le Diplomate, on 14th St., restaurateur Steven Starr’s first foray into the DC market? Lot of empty two-tops and other tables last week even as the line stretched out the door.
And I neglected to follow up on this in the previous GBD poster’s report — the number of all-letter restaurants we have now.
BLT. DGS. GBD.
Better, I guess, than that other trend — of naming a restaurant for the street number it occupies.
Other restaurant naming fads include:
A chef’s guiltily naming the place after the kids he doesn’t get to see enough because he’s always at his restaurant.
And naming the place after something the chef or restaurateur uncovered in his travels to research the place, something so obscure no one can possibly know how to pronounce it.
Do you have a car? Or easy access to public transportation?
Because the places you’re looking for are not, for the most part, in the city. Or if they are, like Mandu, they are easily eclipsed by something better and more interesting in Virginia or Maryland.
I didn’t write “the suburbs,” because I don’t think that term is all that useful anymore. Arlington, Wheaton, Hyattsville, Silver Spring are all more urban than Cleveland Park, Tenleytown, etc.
The strength of DC’s scene is in its sprawl. In the fact you have a place like the Korean-Cajun Mokomandy in Sterling, a restaurant that would fit right into Mt. Vernon Square, for instance. Mokomandy is not exactly bargain eats, but it’s exactly what you’re talking about — a stylish and comfortable place where two can eat for $65-70 with (good, interesting) drinks.
Maryland and Virginia are full of spots like this. Well, not exactly like this; there’s nothing quite like Mokomandy. But you get my idea.
In the city, the natural inclination is to look to places like Cork and Jaleo and 2 Amys. But small plates adds up quickly, and even if you’re trying to be careful you’re often left staring at a bill for two that tops $100.
There are places like Boundary Stone, in Bloomingdale, that keep their prices low (the better to encourage you to drink) but the menu is thisbig.
It’s a conundrum for the city dweller who doesn’t want to leave the city, but wants to eat well and not bust a budget every week.
Here’s my short list:
Trendy/foodie: Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink; Pubbelly; Pubbelly Sushi; DB Bistro Moderne (the Miami outpost of the Daniel Boulud restaurant NY)
Peruvian: CVI.CHE 105 and Sabor a Peru
Cuban: Villa Habana (full service) and Tinto y Cafe (coffee and sandwiches)
Haven’t eaten at Wiseguy yet, no. I did poke my head in there after a recent, unsatisfying (but filling) lunch at The Carving Room next door.
I will say — and many of you, I hope, will understand exactly what I’m talking about — but the smell was spot-on. They have really nailed that NY pizza-by-the-slice smell. Unless they’re spraying it into the atmosphere, they’re doing something right.
As far as 2 Amys goes — I love eating there. I just don’t look forward to the pizzas these days. But the little plates are fantastic. The thing to do, is to not think of it as a pizza place anymore. Think of it as a casual Italian restaurant. In that sense, it’s the best of its kind in the city.
If I’m eating Szechuan, I’m zeroing in on these dishes:
— ma po tofu
— cumin chicken or, if it’s Peter Chang’s, fish (his cumin fish is one of the great dishes you can find within two or so hours of DC)
— dan dan noodles
— steamed or braised fish with cabbage and peppers
— cucumbers served cold with garlic and peppers
If you want to explore, I’ll add another couple of spots for you. In Virginia — Hong Kong Palace, in Falls Church, and Mala Tang, in Arlington. To go along with Sichuan Jin River, China Jade and Joe’s Noodle House, all in Rockville.
Good list, albeit heavy on heavy-hitters.
Not to criticize, but if the chatter’s looking for more range, the list I posted has places up and down the price scale.
Well, there’s Ancora, which is Bob Kinkead’s new roost, at the Watergate.
There’s Oceanaire, which feels kind of corporate and expense-account, and comes across as a steakhouse with fish instead of steak.
And don’t forget about the cozy, intimate Pesce, on P St., where the menu is dictated by what fish, seafood and produce the kitchen sources. It’s uneven, is the thing. It can be great, and leave you convinced that it belongs in the top-rank of mid-level restaurants in the city. And it can also be eh, and leave you wondering why you paid so much money for an ordinary meal.
If you’re open-minded on the question, I’d encourage you to look into Pabu, in Baltimore. No, technically speaking, it’s not a seafood restaurant, but the quality of the product is as high as, if not higher than, most places that do a lot of seafood and fish. I’ve had exceptional sushi and sashimi there.
It’s worth the drive, and it’s worth the splurge.
And the sake list is long and interesting, easily the best I’ve seen on the East Coast.
But I’m putting it at the top of my list. Who can look askance at a rec like that?
I like moozy better than mosey.
Sounds like a dance move. Do the moozy!
Thanks for writing.
Lunch calls, everyone. Gotta moozy.
Thanks for all the questions, comments, tips, speculations, and reports from the front. And thanks for joining me for a couple of hours this morning and early afternoon …
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next week at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]